On Scene: "Sanitizing" Mumbai, Floor by Floor

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As the siege of Mumbai stretched through a third day, a military officer who was inside the Taj hotel provided graphic details to TIME of the confrontation within the historic and ornate structure. At 3:15 p.m. local time on Friday, a massive blast went off inside the hotel, loud enough to startle the hundreds of journalists gathered at the security cordon hundreds of yards behind the hotel. The officer who ran out of the Taj, carrying a pistol, said, "Now everything is burned. The stairs are burned. The woodwork is all spoiled." What did this blast mean? "They are getting desperate," the officer said. "You can tell by their actions."

The officer reported that the commandos had trapped three terrorists on the top floor on the hotel. The rest of the suspects were on the ground floor, but he was not sure how many were in the building altogether, estimating between seven and 10. When asked whether they were trying to take any of them alive, he almost smiled at the question. "If they're alive, it's just coincidence." (See pictures of the days of terror in Mumbai.)

Soon after the officer spoke, the fighting appeared to get exponentially worse. Between 3:30 and 7 p.m. there were at least a dozen huge blasts coming from inside the hotel. Many of them were immediately followed by volleys of gunfire. There were also smaller blasts — the sound of grenades. The larger blasts were most likely the National Security Guard commandos setting off explosives to clear sections of the hotel. The officer would not confirm that, but it was exactly the same blasts I would hear and see later in the day at Nariman House, the residence set up by a Jewish religious group for Israelis overseas, which is also known as the Chabad House.

The explosions were all part of a process that the Indian authorities call "sanitizing" the floors — basically blasting them out to make sure there are no terrorists left. It's difficult to do in a hotel as large as the Taj. There have been injuries among the commandos. At 5:48 p.m., I saw first aid personnel rushing into the hotel. The blasts are doing further damage to the building — there was new smoke coming from the dome on the roof, and for a while, a new active fire burning in one of the second level rooms. The fires were still smoldering at 7:30 p.m.

The Taj is a beloved landmark in this city, and its residents will have to get used to the idea of a Taj that will never be the same. Disbelieving Mumbaikars have been watching as their city of 12 million has been paralyzed — shops closed, streets emptied — by just two dozen attackers.

Meanwhile, at Nariman house, a crowd had been waiting all day for the operation there to be finished. As of 8:45 p.m. (9:45 a.m. Eastern time in the U.S.), it was still going on. Earlier in the evening, the police, who had been pushing the crowd away, started beating them back with bamboo sticks. Crowd control is rudimentary at best. The police and army have stationed vehicles to block foot traffic from the roads; cars are blocked much further down the main road. There are rough ropes strung up by the lackeys of the local political bosses to keep the masses away from the buildings, but if you know the right person, you can still get past them.

Earlier this evening, the authorities announced that the operation at Nariman House was finished, and that there were no hostages alive. But then a short while later, they said it was not completely finished. I watched from the terrace of a nearby building as the commandos blasted each floor one by one, walked through with flashlights, and then gathered on the roof.

Amidst all this, there is very little official information on the events of the last couple of days. There have been no briefings by the Army or police since the announcement of the end of the Oberoi Hotel encounter earlier this afternoon. And so in the vacuum, there are rumors. The involvement of the Nariman House and the ostensibly Israeli hostages within churned up unconcfirmed speculation about Israeli commandos taking part in the operation. This afternoon, there was a rumor reported by at least one of the local television stations that there were new attacks — blasts at four locations in the city, They were all hoaxes.